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Tuesday December 1 2015
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Another New Era at Pitt

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Pitt is the most skilled team in the Big East. The defense is laden with talent and the offense is star-studded, but can the Panthers finally live up to the hype?

A fluff schedule in a soft conference with a stacked team should equal a strong season. Tough matchups against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame line an otherwise favorable 12 game slate for Pitt. Reasonably, the Panthers could battle their way to a 10-2 finish. Realistically, eight wins with a skilled but unproven group would be a strong outing for new Head Coach Paul Chryst.

“The goal is always to win the Big East. But you’ve got to work hard as a team to make your goals a reality,” senior RB Ray Graham said. “Whether you are the team picked to finish first or the team picked last, you have to earn your respect on the field.”

Chryst--considered an offensive guru--has a bevy of skill players surrounding a shaky offensive line-quarterback battery. Tino Sunseri returns behind center after tying a Pitt record for most completions in a season last year. The senior shot-caller is not elite, but he is capable of replicating former Panther Bill Stull’s senior season.

Three years ago, Stull guided Pitt to the school’s first 10 win season since 1981. He also tossed 11 more touchdowns and two less interceptions in his senior year than he did in his junior campaign. Sunseri already matched Stull’s career high in yardage, all that’s left is to boost his touchdown-to-turnover ratio. Chryst’s pro-style offense will help his chances.

Surrounding Sunseri is a questionable, but improved offensive line. Chris Jacobson and Ryan Turnley are future All-Conference performers if they can stay healthy---something neither has accomplished during their collegiate careers. They will anchor an otherwise sub-par line. Pitt allowed an FBS record 63 sacks last season. There is nowhere for the line to go but up.

Headlining the skill positions are Graham and WR Devin Street. Each is a possible first round selection and both should crack 1,000 yards at their position. There is no better RB-WR combination in the conference. Graham is potentially an All-American.

Defensively, the Panthers are daunting.

Aaron Donald finished sixth nationally last season in sacks. He will move to the interior of the defensive line as the Panthers shift back to a 4-3 style. TJ Clemmings, Khaynin Mosely-Smith and Bryan Murphy are the top three linemen flanking Donald.

Though inexperienced, the foursome could make Pitt’s defensive line one of the best in the nation. Donald, who is on 3 preseason watch lists, knows the potential hinges on him.

“I feel a higher level of responsibility this year since our defense will be younger than in the past,” he said. “I need to set a tone when camp starts with my work ethic. I’ve got to lead by example, go 100 miles an hour.”

A heralded secondary is led by safety Jared Holley and cornerback K’Waun Williams. Again, All-Conference honors will likely follow stellar seasons as this deep unit is the Panthers strongest.

Uncertainty surrounds the linebacking core. Much like the defensive line, Todd Thomas, Dan Mason and Ejuan Price are capable of becoming one of the NCAA’s finest units if all start the season healthy. As with the rest of the squad though, they will need time to learn a new system and work in game situations.

It’s hard to pick just one breakout player from a team loaded with young potential, but elite athleticism combined with last year’s experience give him the edge here. Thomas has Photo by William McBridealso thrived in passing coverage, something that plagued scores of previous Pitt linebackers. The redshirt sophomore is a ball hawk and will only improve after a strong freshman season.

Talent, specifically on defense. Cullen Christian and Ray Vinopal are two high profile Michigan transfers that boost an already strong secondary. Pitt finished fifth nationally in sacks, 14th in opponent third down percentage and 35th in total defense last year. The front seven feature the best athletes on the team and the hopeful return of Mason at MLB just adds another elite athlete to the mix.

The most important unit is the weakest unit. Offensive line woes will keep Sunseri on his heels. Playing four road Big East games, picking up yet another new system and loads of inexperience won’t help the situation. 

Neil Walker’s contract expires after the 2016 season. The Pirates second baseman is due for a big raise in arbitration this offseason, likely to $10 million.
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